This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase.
Piers Fawkes, founder and editor-in-chief of trends analysis site PSFK, knows what it takes to make something out of nothing.
The British entrepreneur started working in the digital space in 1996 — “very early in the U.K.” — and a few years and jobs later, got burned when the dot com bubble burst.
By 2003, he decided he had nothing to lose by packing his bags and following his girlfriend to New York City. “I moved with no money and realised that everything was against me,” he tells Business Insider. “I had no work visa and it was going to be near impossible to get a visa.”
He applied for a £30,000 loan, which gave him enough to get by for a couple of months while he figured out what he wanted to do. “I basically turned up, no papers, no job,” he says. “And that’s when it started.”
“My girlfriend would say, ‘Go get yourself a job’ every morning, and I’d apply for a few jobs,” he continues. “I was applying for jobs hoping that the company would sponsor a visa for a job that I couldn’t start for another nine months after the visa became available. Of course, no employer wanted to even deal with that. I only got a handful of interviews in the 18 months I was here. It was a near impossible situation. Everything was stacked against me being here.”
“I became a maniac about writing and sharing articles. Contributors would turn up and share stories about what they were seeing. Eventually, aggregation began to kick in. People began to look to us for a judgment call on what’s interesting.”
So he did what many New Yorkers do to earn their right to live in the city: He hustled. For Fawkes, that meant becoming a professional dog walker and doing “all the crappy jobs someone would do moving into the country.”
But he also found a creative outlet, which would eventually become his startup. “I took my girlfriend’s bicycle, camera, and started taking photographs, finding all these amazing things around the city. I found these new ideas in terms of culture, business, and decided to share them.”
He noticed that there was an emerging blogging community. “It was hard to miss,” he says. “I went to this party at [Gawker founder] Nick Denton’s apartment, and this woman stands up and says, ‘I’m going to start this website, ‘The Huffington Post.'”
So he started a blog of his own, PSFK.com. “I had this URL [from an earlier venture], and I decided to save myself $25 and use the URL I had before,” he says. “I didn’t think it would turn into anything. I became a maniac about writing and sharing articles. Contributors would turn up and share stories about what they were seeing. Eventually, aggregation began to kick in. People began to look to us for a judgment call on what’s interesting.”
Now PSFK has become a larger media site, documenting trends in business, within the workplace, and around the world. It also has a consultancy arm, which works with big-name clients like Apple and BMW to tell them what’s cool and trending.
“About six months after starting, Anheuser Busch said, ‘You seem to know about trends, can you write a trends report?'” he explains. “I’m paying off a loan, walking dogs, and I thought, ‘Hey, I have an advertising background.’ I realised I had a bunch of writers and contributors in the U.K. who can send me data about what’s happening. In New York City, I can identify trends. So I thought, of course I can write the U.K. trends report. Today, with the collapse of the world economy, providing private advice to companies has really supported our growth.”
As PSFK has grown, so has the nature of its work. For example, it’s currently helping revitalize downtown Bogota, Colombia, through a special project, My Ideal City. Well-known architect and city planner Gary Hack is crowdsourcing ideas about how to revitalize the city, which he’ll eventually present to the mayor and chair of architecture. PSFK did a trends analysis in urban living, and will be delivering its findings to the city.
“What’s my job?” asks Fawkes. “Making sure that our thinking is the most progressive that there is out there.”
Today, he has 15 employees in New York, along with 20 regular contributors and freelancers. He hasn’t taken on any outside funding. “If someone gave us a million dollars, we would have hired a bunch of staff, but we would have done the same things.”
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